Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle-God Momma: wash your bowl

ensoAn adept asked his master, “I have finished my breakfast, what shall I do?”  “Wash your bowl” was the reply.  To eat in a Zen monastery is both sustenance and ritual.  Like the tea ceremony’s elevation of the mundane to the sublime, it becomes the prayer rather than being prefaced by the prayer.  Simple fare served under the rule of take what you’ll eat and eat what you take.  And when your meal is finished, wash your bowl.  First you pour a small amount of water onto your plate and carefully scrape the plate with the edge of your spoon; then you pour the water from the plate to your bowl and repeat the scraping.  Finally, you drink the wash water.  If all this seems like a waste of time it’s because you’re missing the point.

To be doing what you’re doing is the point.  Saving time for more important matters by rushing through what seems inconsequential only leaves us rushing around, as my grandfather would say, like a fart in a jar.  Zen is the most simple form of religion to practice, and the hardest form of religion to really get.  Imagine hearing the Sunday sermon reduced to: when you eat, eat; when you breathe, breathe; and when you shit, shit…but above all else, don’t wobble.

Zen came into being on the day that the Buddha gave his silent flower sermon.  Rather than teaching the dharma, he simply held out a single flower.  Only Mahakashyapa understood, smiling quietly in recognition.  Alternately, there is a story of the Buddha opening his mouth to speak, but before he vocalized the words a bird sang several notes.  The Buddha closed his mouth.

Historically, Zen is Chinese (Cha’an); it migrated to Japan, Korea, and South East Asia.  It was as if the high philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism met its spiritual consort in the nature religion of Taoism.  Where once the doctrine and the path took long hours of philosophical discourse to explain, it could now be shown fully by the chirp of a bird or the lifting of a flower.

Where is enlightenment?  There, the tree is enlightenment.  Look at it do what it does and only do what it does.  Trees don’t wobble, they tree with the entirety of their being.  Those outside my window are being buffeted by the wind.  Wind is like the swirling thoughts in our minds.  Trees do not hold onto the wind, grasping at it.  The tree that tries to hold onto the wind will soon cease to be a tree; it will become a log rotting on the forest floor.  But the mushrooms that arise from it will be enlightenment too.

To be wholly in the moment is the point.  Whether it is the moment of washing your bowl, hoeing the field, or weighing out flax in the market.  And so a great master was asked, “What is Buddha nature?”  He answered, “Four pounds of flax.”  And at that moment Buddha nature was four pounds of flax; it couldn’t be anything else without missing the point.  If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.  He’s in the way.  Your concept of him is no different than a tree trying to hold onto the wind.

It, the point, is beyond the application of thought.  If one is thinking about the Buddha when taking a shit, then one has turned the Buddha into shit.  But if one is wholly in the moment of taking a shit, then the shit becomes Buddha nature.  The fall from grace is in mental wobbling.  It’s all so simple, yet so difficult.  You cannot think your way to It.  You cannot seek It out.  It finds you when you’re lost in the moment.

Where are you between two thoughts?  Right where you should be if you are truly there.

7 replies »

  1. A favorite statement of mine, translated, I think, from the Japanese:

    From the standpoint of Buddhism, experience presents itself directly.

  2. Russ, like getting smacked with a sandal, no? (That’s a great statement, thanks.)

    As a personal addendum: i’ve been criticized once or twice for generally choosing jobs that do not utilize my brain as much as my body. A fair criticism except that making brain work into prayer is difficult. If one must think then it is hard to abide in the spaces between thoughts.

  3. Yes, it’s hard to reconcile work of the mind, including writing, with Zen. (I’m a secular Zen student.) The brushstroke art you chose is one of the best I’ve seen and I love that stuff.

  4. I guess that one could call me a secular Zen student too…after a fashion. In school we were told that the definition of religion is a system of a beliefs that informs behavior in this world. But there isn’t much to “believe” in Zen; even a lot of the mahayana doctrine that it’s based on is almost superfluous.

    I totally forgot to credit the art, but i got it from some person running an internet ad agency who liked it because it was so zen and it looked the first letter of the person’s name. It is a nice circle though, isn’t it?

  5. Yeah, I’m a sucker for that stuff. Even if it’s advertising art, the artist dashed it off nicely in the spirit of Zen.

  6. Nice tree analogy Lex. This reminds me, I am putting together a guided hike about the coniferous forest ecosystem: nurse logs, soil compostions, fungi, undergrowth species, etc, etc… Thanks for the enlightenment.